Billions and billions of dollars

Earlier this month, we asked if a garden could change the food system. The jury’s still out. In the mean time, we’ve been trying to wrap our minds around the Farm Bill, the gigantic piece of legislation up for reauthorization in 2012 that will determine the trajectory of of our food and farm policy and affect everything from the price of beef to the number of young farmers entering the field.

Among the issues within the Farm Bill is that of farm subsidies—the payments and market controls that favor large-scale agriculture and help propel overproduction of commodity crops like corn, soy, rice and cotton. Subsidies help fuel artificially low prices for livestock feed and the subsequent low cost of industrially-raised meat, and the surplus commodity crops are often funneled into the processed foods that are contributing to many of this country’s health problems.

These issues are well-documented. But as we anticipate the 2012  Farm Bill debate, we wanted to have a better understanding of how subsidies work—so we know what our food system could look like if the system gets reformed. Here’s a little roundup of readings that help make the convoluted world of farm subsidies a little more clear:

The Environmental Working Group has been working on this issue since 2004. In a recent piece, their president, Ken Cook, unravels subsidies by type—direct payments, counter-cyclical payments, crop insurance—but points out their common thread: subsidies favor the rich. “From 1995-2009 the largest and wealthiest top 10 percent of farm program recipients received 74 percent of all farm subsidies,” writes Cook. Sigh.

The Center for American Progress explains the inefficiency of direct payments, proposes phasing out their $5 billion payouts to farmland owners, and calls for reinvesting some of the savings into programs that promote clean energy and energy efficiency on the farm.

And at Grist, our pal Tom Philpott puts subsidies in perspective for us by taking a close look at U.S. corn production. So much corn, so heavily subsidized. For $56 billion in subsidies over the past ten years, what do we get in return? The answer’s not pretty.

Check back in two weeks for another look under the hood of Farm Bill politics.

Posted by: Chefs Collaborative

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